What Arc Angel is supposed to do is to critique a story's "structure, plot line, character arcs and emotional sub-text." According to Weingarten, it works by analyzing stories word by word, including evaluating "how well characters are developed, how dynamically they interact, how effectively their plights resonate, how the plot is resolved, etc."
Being Gene Weingarten, his approach to investigation was to write a cheesy short story full of cliches and deliberately bad writing. He includes some snippets like this one: "At that very moment, unbeknown to Laurence, his wife, Lucretia, was flying to Zurich with $312 million of assets she had stolen from him, but the plane was crashing into a mountain and Lucretia's body was being reduced to pieces as small and bloody as your pinky toenail after it gets caught on a sweat sock as you are yanking it on."
And of course, Arc Angel thought it was great, which is probably why Weingarten wrote the column. The Zirdland folks had an explanation: "What you wrote was florid and colorful, which Arc Angel saw as a good thing. The problem is we haven't yet developed in it the ability to detect cheesy writing. We are definitely working on it."
I went to Zirdland, and discovered there's more to them than Arc Angel. A press release describes them as "The new writer's desktop-to-marketplace environment." As their FAQs page shows, they are in fact attempting to turn the huge mass of writers trying to get publishing into an industry. It's difficult to tell exactly where they plan to get the revenue from. At the moment, both registering with the site and using Arc Angel are free. They have a blog, and they run assorted writing contests. Maybe they will run ads. Maybe they are thinking publishers will pay them for finding best sellers. Who knows?
But there's yet another player in the great game of getting published.